From the Magazine International Affairs Startup Culture

How Connections Help Place the Displaced

Goory Al Hamed fled Syria and now teaches Arabic online to students around the world, from a refugee camp in Iraq. Photo courtesy of NaTakallam.

Specially-developed technology tools are helping refugees find housing, work, language skills, and even turning them into technologists.

Goory Al Hamed teaches Arabic over Skype from a refugee camp in Qushtapa, Iraq.

The 27-year-old Syrian refugee lives in the crowded, muddy camp in the country’s northern region. It offers only a shaky Wi-Fi connection, but Al Hamed says she teaches her six students—who are as close as Lebanon and as far away as the United States—as often as she can, because she needs the money. Before she got here after fleeing Syria, she moved from city to city in search of a place to live.

“This is a good job, especially for refugees, because it’s very hard to find job opportunities here in Iraq,” she says. For her language-tutoring services, facilitated through a New York and Paris-based startup called NaTakallam, Al Hamed makes $10 an hour.

Al Hamed is one of the many displaced who are gaining various sorts of empowerment because of networking and technology.

NaTakallam, we speak in Arabic, is just one of a slew of startups, nonprofits, and tech-powered tools that have emerged in recent years, aiming to help asylum seekers and the displaced connect to opportunities.

“Tech is incredible,” says NaTakallam Founder and CEO Aline Sara, a Lebanese-American based in New York who travels often to Lebanon, where roughly one in five people are displaced. “It’s been a lifeline for refugees.” The idea for NaTakallam emerged out of a Columbia University competition after Sara graduated from its School of International and Public Affairs.

There are more than roughly 60 million refugees worldwide—20 million forced across a border and about another 40 million displaced within countries. The lifeline of networked technology links those displaced people to everything from jobs, mentorship, and skills to a place to sleep at night. Aiming to make that lifeline even more robust, technologists and entrepreneurs across Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East are creating both for-profit and nonprofit organizations to launch smartphone apps, websites, crowdsourced databases, open-source spreadsheets, and plenty of other tools.

A bevy of Airbnb-style and other housing platforms match displaced guests with local hosts and vacant spaces for free. They include Netherlands-based Refugee Hero, the French Comme à la Maison (“At Home”) and Réfugiés Bienvenue (“Refugees Welcome”), the German Flüchtlinge Willkommen (also “Refugees Welcome”), and the UK’s Refugees at Home.

For language help, there is Refugee Phrasebook, a crowdsourced vocabulary aid of essential phrases, including medical and legal terms, in 28 languages. Begun in Berlin in 2015, it puts its phrases in spreadsheets that are open for anyone to access, use, customize, and print, says team member Markus Neuschäfer. While some other organizations don’t share translations or only share them in hard to-reuse formats like PDF, he says, “we help refugees be more independent.”

Syrian refugees at a refugee settlement in Northern Lebanon attend an orientation session about teaching Arabic online. Photo courtesy of NaTakallam.

And for tracking down job, mentorship, training, and learning opportunities, there’s the Jordanian makerspace Refugees Open Ware, the Dutch co-design place Makers Unite, the German coding program Refugees on Rails, and the entrepreneurship center Startup Refugees and mobile-learning site Funzi, both based in Finland. Funzi is supported by Facebook’s Internet.org initiative.

There are a lot of tech tools for asylum seekers and the displaced. Whether they are actually using them is another matter.

Many refugees simply don’t know about all these tools, according to 30-year-old Syrian immigrant Maher Ismaail. A web developer, Ismaail left Damascus in 2014 and now lives in Berlin. He says that even when the displaced are aware of such tools, they often lack the language skills to identify and operate them. In addition, he notes other problems. For instance, on some housing platforms many more beds are being offered than sought, in part because entrepreneurs without a personal history of displacement don’t understand how refugees use technology or find information.

So Ismaail decided to tackle this problem by launching his own startup, Dalili, a database full of services and a search engine with which to find them. Arabic for my guide, Dalili aggregates jobs, internships, German-language courses, social events, and other opportunities to give the greatest possible number of Berlin newcomers “the chance to access these services,” Ismaail says.

“If you don’t know how to start your way as a newcomer, we will guide you step by step on how to integrate in the best and easiest way,” he says. Ismaail and his co-founder released a prototype of Dalili earlier this year, and plan a full version in both app and website form soon.

Ismaail hopes Dalili, built upon his own painfully-acquired personal knowledge of what it means to be a refugee, can offer fellow newcomers a user experience other ventures cannot. “I’m an immigrant. I know what we think and what we need,” he says. “I already suffered from the problems. I lost almost 10 months of my life here in Germany without doing anything connected to my profession.”

In launching Dalili, Ismaail can work within his industry as a web developer and, he hopes, make a living too. Unlike most efforts run by non-refugees, which are social entrepreneurship projects (though not always officially registered as non-profits), Dalili is a for-profit. While it will always be free for users, Ismaail says, it hopes to make revenue from companies through ads, recruitment fees, and the promotion of brands and events. “For-profit creates more job offers to newcomers,” he says. “We want to scale the business and let more people be involved with us.”

And, ultimately, Ismaail says, he wants to show other displaced people that it’s possible “to build a new life like me.”

A teacher conducts a Skype session with a student in the U.S. Photo courtesy of NaTakallam.

Millions of immigrants leave their homes as well-trained and highly-qualified employees but are viewed as unemployable after they leave. A good example is Al Hamed, the teacher in Qushtapa. In 2013, she was about to complete the final year of a computer engineering degree, when she had to flee Syria with her parents, five sisters, and two brothers.

“I was in Damascus studying. Then the war started,” Al Hamed says. “Our journey was very hard. It was winter. We walked about two hours on foot. When we arrived we went to [Domiz] camp, and unfortunately we didn’t get a tent, it was so crowded.”

Al Hamed and her family left Domiz camp, going first to Duhok, then to Aqrah, and finally ending up in the governorate of Erbil, where she found Qushtapa camp and later NaTakallam. But she, of course, has bigger dreams.

When Al Hamed’s not teaching Arabic, she’s learning coding. Along with five others in Qushtapa, which houses more than 7,500 displaced people, Al Hamed is enrolled in Re:Coded, a rigorous 10-month programming bootcamp. Traveling to Kasnazan, at the outskirts of the city of Erbil, for in-person instruction, the coders study full-stack software development that’s been adapted from the curriculum at New York’s Flatiron School coding academy.

Re:Coded, incubated at New York University, partners with the United Nations Development Programme to offer the fellowship at no cost to selected refugees, internally displaced people, and vulnerable youth in Iraq. Forty percent of them live inside camps, like Al Hamed.

She puts in long, late hours of studying, in hopes of someday finding a job in the industry—and out of the camp. After graduating from Re:Coded at the end of April, she’s on her way: the program guarantees her a portfolio, certification, and, most importantly, full-time work within six months, in partnership with employers like Microsoft.

“I spend all day learning coding. I am so happy with it,” Al Hamed says. “For me, the most important thing is to work as a web developer one day because I love this field.” She has dreams of making it to England or Canada. “It can be anywhere,” she continues. “Just not here.”

ANN BABE writes about community, identity, and tech-enabled social change around the world.

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